Ad astra per aspera, I said in the last posts comments, so it’s fitting that we now move the discussion from fantasy sandboxes to the stars – from Vanguard, considered by many a failure as a game, a sandbox and an MMO, to MMO gaming’s most successful sandbox, EVE Online.
Every fantasy MMO is based on Dungeons and Dragons or some other game that was in turn influenced by D&D, including Ultima Online, a title lambasted for its problems in its heyday but now held up as a suspicuouly rosy sandbox icon. Like Vanguard, EVE is a game I love but have deep issues with, and unlike Vanguard has a history of growth and prosperity despite a rocky beginning. But EVE, too, has its lessons to be learned from Skyrim.
That EVE is the most successful sandbox in the virtual world space cannot be disputed; it has true emergent gameplay and a near-infinite variety of ways one can approach its gameplay. But it does have its failures, both in the banal nature of much of the gameplay and in its failure to provide immersive elements.
By that, do not misunderstand me; EVE is very immersive as MMOs go and more so that most. But the universe of EVE is only minimally interactable: asteroids are depleted and wormholes are closed by player action, and the market is shaped almost entirely by in-game activities, but it’s only in this last aspect that it truly fulfills the potential of the virtual world. NPCs are static photos that never change or move. Stations are great monolithic that are only destroyed in videos that don’t reflect gameplay. Players can build and destroy structures, but is that alone such a huge step up from copper nodes in Elwynn Forest that despawn when you deplete them?
Tabletop games have a unique asset that video games lack: a human gamemaster to administer the universe and react to events. Computers aren’t there yet, but a game like Skyrim shows me that a convincing simulated environment isn’t so far away as many of us think; Skyrim has its glitches but it’s pretty freaking close. It’s something few MMOs even attempt anymore.
The developers of EVE had the notion that you should be able to get out of your ship and interact with more stuff. In practice that turned out to be fairly half-baked, to be honest, and longtime EVE players rallied against it when it seemed to be competing for developer time against the core gameplay. EVE is balanced around that core gameplay, and taking too many players out of a vast space much of which is already empty would be very, very dangerous. So the solution was to minimize the appeal of off-ship activity and shunt the more exciting stuff off to a different game, Dust 514. The goal of integrating EVE and Dust is pretty audacious, but more ambitious still would be a game with a smaller space but more room for characters to operate within it. And you can’t subtract space; EVE players would throw a justified fit.
As with Vanguard this is a failure in fundamental design, one that probably cannot be addressed with ad hoc later development. You’d have to design the game around a mixture of starship and off-board operations from the get go. And no, Star Trek Online, a game that incredibly fails in more places than EVE and Vanguard combined, did not succeed in doing that, and in my opinion didn’t try very hard to.
This is ironic because EVE is one of the few games not defined by its adherence to the D&D paradigm that conventional MMOs almost invariably follow fairly closely through a long lineage of adaptations onto silicon. EVE descends from Elite and thence from Traveller, a game designed by people who didn’t know all that much about D&D but were well-schooled in the possibilities of science fiction, and who had been blown away by Star Wars a year earlier.
The irony cuts deep because Traveller is very much a sandbox game from thirty years before that term was ever applied to video games. Instead of D&D’s structured, linear adventures and campaigns you had tools to develop a universe and set the characters loose in it. You could run a sandbox using D&D, but that was never the expectation. In Traveller, even the adventures forced you into a sandbox.
EVE – Traveller‘s descendant in the modern realm of online virtual worlds – got a good chunk about what Traveller was all bout right, but it left out two-thirds of the possibilities. The Traveller party would never spend all their time in their ship; it was a home base and a huge asset but also a source of tribulations and difficulties. It’s hard to imagine how an EVE where you might lose a ship and be stranded doing odd jobs on some backwater planet and have to work your way back up to one might even work – in Traveller it was a common adventure hook, and getting a ship and the freedom to roam the stars – or plunder them – that came with it was a major goal.
It might be tempting to think of such an MMO as two discreet games bolted roughly together, as Star Trek Online and Pirates of the Burning Sea are, although one would hope that one of the faces wouldn’t be quite so gallingly weak. But even two games in one that were equally good would be a failure to really reach for the stars. No, you’d want seamless integration between the two in a setting specifically designed to encourage it – one much like the rough implied Imperium presented in the Little Black Books in 1977.
Making such a setting truly interactable would be a huge challenge. It would be a setting with all the possibilities of an EVE combined with the possibilities of the other two-thirds that never saw development. Vast planets, although not necessarily a vast volume of space with thousands of stars that would spread players too thin. A single subsector, eight by ten parsecs, would be enough to start, and you could accommodate thousands of players in all the nooks and crannies of its worlds and asteroid belts and starport dives. You’d have to be clever about populating it with NPCs, alien critters and AI starships, since the simulation cannot be even close to perfect, and you’d have to be very careful the let both the player and NPC parts of the universe evolve on their own, organically and synergistically with as little manual moderation as possible. But clever design can hide a lot of soft underbelly, and Skyrim makes me think it’s possible.
As much as I talk about fantasy MMOs, that there is my dream title. Traveller Online, and a lot of the guts that you would need are already there in 34 years of lovingly developed tabletop product; algorithms for procedurally generating worlds and stars and ships and guns and freaky alien stuff. Sure the science in it was stale as hell even in 1977, but popular science fiction (as opposed to SF in the written word) hasn’t really evolved that much since the days of Flash and Buck.
It could be done. To the stars, my friends, along a rough road.